In the early 1850s, Andrew Carnegie was a teenage Scottish immigrant in Pittsburgh, working long days as a telegraph messenger. He was a serious boy with a drive for self-improvement, and he was an eager reader. But Pittsburgh at the time had no public libraries. So when he heard that a local businessman, Colonel James Anderson, would open his personal library to “working boys,” young Andrew took full advantage.
The impact of this gift has since been felt by generations of public library users, as Carnegie explains in his 1920 autobiography:
“It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution. I am sure that the future of those libraries I have been privileged to found will prove the correctness of this opinion. For if one boy in each library district, by having access to one of these libraries, is half as much benefited as I was by having access to Colonel Anderson’s four hundred well-worn volumes, I shall consider they have not been established in vain.”
This personal experience was something Carnegie returned to again and again when asked to explain his philanthropic ventures. He told it as a story of profound gratitude for a gift received, but he also offered it, as we can see, as a justification for his support of specific charitable projects. It explained something about both the why and the how of his later giving.
The Colonel Anderson gift was a meaningful highlight of what we can call Carnegie’s “philanthropic autobiography.” And it demonstrates just how far-reaching the impact of such personal experiences — and our autobiographical understandings of them — can be.
It seems somewhat obvious to point out, as Robert Payton and I did in Understanding Philanthropy, that everyone has a connection to philanthropy. But not everyone realizes that they have a philanthropic autobiography they could write. Giving, volunteering, nonprofits, informal helping have all made a difference in all our lives in some way, directly or indirectly, and for many of us these have profoundly shaped who we are, and how we describe or think about who we are.
However, few people — even among those who make their living in philanthropy — spend much time reflecting on their philanthropic life stories. This is a problem because doing so can help us understand philanthropy (our own and others) and can help us improve and increase it. Thinking back on our own experiences and stories can help us become better, more active, more self-aware philanthropists. The process can help define and refine why and how we give, and help us see our place in the larger social world of giving.
Thinking about our philanthropic autobiographies matters to scholars also because it can help us explain and interpret philanthropic behavior. Individual giving provides the bulk of total philanthropic giving, and individuals make up the army of volunteers who get so much done. Research has long sought to understand why these individuals give and volunteer, and the findings do not fit the simple explanations to which people often default — that is, that people give either out of pure altruistic motives or out of self-interest. People give often because of empathy, or what Paul Schervish calls “identification” as part of their “moral biography.” People give because they have received something valuable, or been fortune in their lives, in the past; “giving back” becomes a dominant theme in their autobiography.
Looking at philanthropic autobiography is also a terrific entrée into understanding how tradition and culture and social origins affect philanthropy. We look at biographies of people who grew up Buddhist, or Latino, or working class, or in the Deep South, as a way of learning something significant about Buddhism, Latino culture, working class struggles, or Southern mores. In the same way, we will learn something significant about philanthropy by asking more people to tell, and perhaps write, their philanthropic autobiographies.
Part II on how to write a philanthropic autobiography to come tomorrow…